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Pastors, Perdue to pray for rain

Hall event scheduled simultaneously with vigil at state Capitol

POSTED: November 17, 2007 5:05 a.m.

God knows we’re dry.

But, the Rev. Dr. Terry Walton said he and other ministers will still pray and ask God to send rain to the region, but not before offering prayers of thanksgiving and confession.

Walton, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, will join five other ministers today at Roosevelt Square to pray about the ongoing drought.

"We are in no way making a statement that we don’t trust God," Walton said. "But we probably contributed to this. We’ve probably done some things to the environment and have probably taken for granted our lake and our resources."

He said that God specifically said to bring our needs to Him.

"We need some water," Walton said.

But he made clear that the prayers won’t be a wish list.

"One person will offer a prayer of thanksgiving, and one person will offer a prayer of confession and then, a prayer of supplication," he said.

The 11:45 a.m. service is being held simultaneously with a prayer service called by Gov. Sonny Perdue at the state Capitol in Atlanta.

Walton will be joined by the Rev. Jim Bocian of St. Paul United Methodist on Washington Street, the Rev. Marcus Dixon of St. Paul United Methodist on Summit Street, the Rev. Josh Hughes of First Baptist Church on Green Street, the Rev. Dr. Thomas R. Smiley of Lakewood Baptist Church and the Rev. Fabio Sotelo of St. Michael Catholic Church.

While public prayer vigils may turn heads elsewhere, they’re not unusual in the South, where turning to the heavens for help is common, and sometimes politically expedient.

"It’s just more acceptable in the South. Christianity has more of a place in the culture here than in some other region," said Ray Van Neste, a professor of Christian studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

"And it’s only natural, in a way, for the public to pray for rain."

Perdue won’t be the first governor to hold a call for public prayer during the epic drought gripping the Southeast. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley issued a proclamation declaring a week in July as "Days of Prayer for Rain" to "humbly ask for His blessings and to hold us steady in times of difficulty."

And Perdue’s move certainly hasn’t provoked much opposition. The loudest critic has been the Atlanta Freethought Society, a secular group that is expecting about a dozen of its 125 members to protest at the vigil.

"The governor can pray when he wants to," said Ed Buckner, who is organizing the protest. "What he can’t do is lead prayers in the name of the people of Georgia."

The political instinct to pray for rain in the South isn’t hard to understand, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. Studies show religion plays a more active role in the lives of residents here, politicians included.

"I don’t know if it would really hurt a politician outside the South, but they’d be less likely to think about it," said Bullock, who specializes in Southern politics. "If religion plays less of a role in your daily life, then turning to religion in a crisis would be less likely to occur to you."

Political heavyweights outside the United States are known to occasionally plead to the heavens for rain. In May, Australian Prime Minister John Howard asked churchgoers to pray for rain in hopes of snapping a drought that has devastated crops and bankrupted farmers. It’s one of the worst droughts to hit Australia in a century.

In the United States, public pleas for rain have sometimes gotten snagged in the familiar church-versus-state argument.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, long bucked the calls for a federal day of prayer. But he was an exception.

From George Washington — who declared "a day of prayer and thanksgiving" — to Harry Truman, who established a National Day of Prayer — American politicians have not been shy about associating themselves with petitions to the Almighty.

About a third of the Southeast is now mired in the worst stages of drought. As dry conditions linger and water levels drop, prayer vigils for rain are springing up around the region.

A Baptist, Perdue has several times mentioned the need for prayer — along with water conservation — as the state’s drought crisis has worsened. Over the summer, he participated in day of prayer for agriculture at a gathering of the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon.

At Tuesday’s event, several Protestant ministers will join Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of Chestnut Mountain on the steps of the Capitol to ask God for help.

"Hopefully people have been praying," Perdue said before organizing the vigil. "We are really considering a statewide vigil in that effort."

A few steps away, the secular activists will stand in protest, a reminder of sorts that not everyone is OK with the public prayer vigil.

"We don’t elect officials to lead us on religious issues," Buckner said. "I’d be just as opposed to the governor convening a bunch of atheists on state grounds to talk about how foolish prayer is."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.



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